My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Haunting and melancholy, Goodbye Tsugumi is a coming-of-age tale set against the vivid backdrop of the Japanese seaside.

“It’s a marvellous thing, the ocean. For some reason when two people sit together looking out at it, they stop caring whether they talk or stay silent.”

The first person narrative is told through the eyes of Maria, an only child whose father is currently married to a woman who is not her mother, a situation which necessitates their living by the seaside with relatives while he extracts himself from the unwanted first marriage. Her mother’s relationship is little more than a footnote to the plot, as most young teens are more absorbed in their own affairs than that of adults. Maria’s fraught relationship with her cousin Tsugumi occupies the majority of the story. Tsugumi is a frail young woman, born with many ailments and not expected to live a long or healthy life. She is doted on by her parents and sister, who she is constantly cruel to.

“All of a sudden I felt as if she had come into focus for me, and for the first time I could see her clearly – a strange, overwhelming sadness”

Tsugumi is not a character who wants or deserves your pity. She is malicious and rude, she takes advantage of others and manipulates without remorse. And yet there is something that Maria, and my extension readers, are drawn to about her. It’s impossible to look away from her, and the powder keg that could explode at any time.

“We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves.”

In telling a story about the inability of all the people around her to say goodbye to Tsugumi Banana Yoshimoto has crafted a surprisingly layered story about family bonds in very few pages. But perhaps because there are so few pages and the prose is very sparse there is a sense of something being missing from the story. Things untold that hover in the back of your mind, and finishing the book does little to achieve a sense of completeness.

“I managed to read quite a lot in the intervals when I stopped letting my lazy thoughts take control.”

There are books throughout this story, they play the role of relieving boredom, providing an escape and drawing Maria into a world not wholly occupied by Tsugumi. I liked the little mentions of books bringing joy.

“in towns near the sea the rain falls in a more hushed, lonely way than in other places.”

The landscape of the seaside town Yoshimoto has created is so vivid. I could almost taste the salt in the air, hear the soft shuffle of sand and picture the Japanese inns and shops clustered between the mountains and the sea. The sea is almost its own character in the story, and gives so much texture and an element of mystery to what could otherwise be a simple family tale.

Overall I enjoyed this book, but I think the sparse style and very slow moving plot might be off-putting for readers who are looking for fast pace or conflicts to be resolved. It’s my second book by Yoshimoto and I will definitely be looking for more of her work.

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Tamsien - Babbling Books
Reader, blogger, photographer with perpetually itchy feet. Host of Babbling Books' Readalongs and curator of a very eclectic Instagram account.

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